What will you drive 10 years from now?  Ongoing research in the School of Engineering at the University of New Mexico may have some influence on that decision. One of the many research laboratories across the globe exploring a future of vehicles powered by fuel cells is located at UNM. A concept car shown by Daihatsu runs on a hydrazine hydrate fuel cell partially designed at UNM. But it’s only one of many possible fuel cell technologies. Last month at the Tokyo Motor Show Daihatsu also displayed a concept pickup truck with UNM fuel cell technology.

Plamen Atanassov, founding director of UNM’s Center for Emerging Energy Technology and professor of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering, is the guiding force for UNM’s fuel cell research.  Some members of his research group are looking hard for an efficient low-cost catalyst for fuel cells, while other concentrate on biological fuel cells.

Atanassov arrived at UNM in 1992 from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia, Bulgaria.  By 2000 he was building a research group. Now several research professors and 15 graduate students in his laboratory are doing much of the research as he leads the group, searches for grants and collaborators, and guides the group. 

“There are a number of undergraduates in the lab, and visiting graduate students from Brazil, France, Finland and other places, who stay for a semester or two as they use this opportunity to be involved in the cutting edge of the search for a low-cost catalyst,” Atanassov said.  “The research would be impossible without the students, and in turn the students get a good opportunity to understand how to work in a professional research environment.”

Part of Atanassov’s job is to give students the context for their work. Lately, students are focused on finding a powder combination that will be more efficient than platinum to be used as a catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells.

“If hydrogen fuel cells work as they are now envisioned, motorists will drive up to a fueling station, refill the tank with hydrogen and be back on the road in about the time it now takes to fill a tank with gas,” Atanassov said. “That’s the long range vision for the research.” 

Atanassov is also deeply involved in economic development.  He is a co-inventor in 25 issued U.S. patents and has 42 patent applications in the pipeline.

He has worked with a variety of start-up companies including BioDetect, later Mesosystems, now ICX, Superior Micro-Powders, now Cabot-SMP; MesoFuel, now Intelligent Energy and most recently Pajarito Powder.

Two of his current students have started technology-based companies over the last year alone.  Santiago Rojas Carbonell is founding a start-up company called Batterade which is working on a technology to recharge cell phones in places without grid electricity.  Claudia Narvaez Villarrubia and her brother Moses started Pucara Engineering to develop biomedical applications of biofuel cell technology.

Atanassov’s office wall is covered with graphs that show what his competition is doing.  He routinely exchanges information about his research results with other research groups throughout the world engaged in similar tasks and will spend part of his upcoming sabbatical traveling in Europe to connect with collaborators.

Atanassov’s roots are in Bulgaria having graduated from the University of Sofia in 1987, and specializing in chemical physics and theoretical chemistry.  He says he was attracted to chemistry because it was one of the strongest programs in his alma mater and he wanted the best education possible.  He received his Ph.D. from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Physical Chemistry and specialized in Bio-electrochemistry in the Frumkin’s Institute of Electrochemistry, Moscow, Russia. 

Atanassov’s research group has an especially wide variety of interests – all energy related.  Their current activity includes:

Electrocatalysts & Bio-electrocatalysts

  • Enzyme-catalyzed electrocatalysis and bio-electrocatalysis
  • Bio-inspired electrocatalysts design and
  • ‘Materials Geonomics’ in electrocatalysis
  • Nano-structured catalysts for oxidation of carbon-containing and carbon-free fuels
  • Non-platinum catalysts for oxygen reduction and evolution reactions

Materials solutions for battery technology – manufacturability

  • Structured cathodes for Lithium- ion batteries
  • Designer anode/Lithium intercalating materials
  • Printable Lithium-ion batteries

Novel devices design for power generation and energy harvesting

  • Alkaline Membrane Fuel Cells
  • Electrolyzers and electro-synthesis reactors
  • Direct alcohol and hydrocarbon fuel cells
  • Mixed reactant fuel cells
  • Enzymatic energy harvesters
  • Implantable and biomedical fuel cells
  • Microbial fuel cells for the environmental application

Integrating batteries, supercaps and fuel cells

  • Test-bed at industry relevant scale
  • Accelerated test protocols and durability solutions